Kayaking in and Around San Francisco: 10 of the Best Places to Paddle Nearby

With no shortage of water, it’s little surprise that San Francisco is a hot spot for kayaking. Locals and tourists gravitate to take advantage of the optimal paddling conditions.

But finding the best places can be hard to navigate if you don’t happen to have an inside source to tell you about the best places to try out. The good news is, we have done the research for you! From leisurely rides with a low tide to more challenging rivers and bays, here is a list of the ten best places to kayak in San Francisco! 

For more destinations check out our post about kayaking in California here.

1. Fort Baker – Horseshoe Cove, CA

The old army post, located 25 minutes by car from central San Francisco, Fort Baker is an excellent area for kayaking. There aren’t a lot of beachy regions, but it offers a great launching pad for kayakers. Additionally, if you prefer to rent equipment, SeaTrek has you covered!

Horseshoe Cove is located on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and enters San Francisco Bay. The launching area is within the Fort Baker recreational area, and you can veer off into several different kayaking routes. 

The easiest of the routes is a paddle from Horseshoe Cove to Sausalito. However, if you are looking for a more demanding experience, you can paddle to Alcatraz or Angel Island, although the current may prove troublesome. 

For those experienced, kayaking towards Yellow Bluff will give you a fair amount of waves to navigate. It is worth noting that if you choose to rent a kayak from SeaTrek, you will need to pass an introductory class to use certain types of equipment. They also offer guided kayaking tours for a cost.

2. Tomales Bay, CA

As part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay is a bit secluded from the hustle and bustle of the city. Located an hour outside of downtown San Francisco, Tomales Bay is ideal for beginners because of its calm waters. 

To access the bay, which feeds into the Pacific Ocean, there are four landing areas that you can utilize for your kayak:

  • Tomales Bay State Park
  • Miller Boat Launch/ Nick’s Cove 
  • Tomales Bay Resort
  • Lawson’s Landing 

Additionally, you can rent gear through the company Blue Waters Kayaking. Most paddle their way down the shore towards Marshall Beach, although that can take up to five hours to navigate. For beginners, you can view many types of wildlife from short tours along the shoreline. 

3. Russian River, CA

Around an hour north of downtown San Francisco, the Russian River offers a variety of kayaking routes. With the river dividing into sections, the top area is Class 1 and best for beginner kayakers.

Traveling a bit further is where the waters can become more challenging, at times containing Class 2 and 3 rapids. However, these are also the areas where you commonly see a great deal of wildlife, including otters and blue herons.

There are two options for kayak gear rental in the area. The first is River’s Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips, and the second being the Monte Rio Recreation and Park District.

4. Islais Creek, CA

For a unique experience, many people enjoy kayaking in Islais Creek. Its proximity to downtown (less than three miles) means that it is easily accessible and gives it an interesting perspective.

Many locals view the area as a brief escape from city life. The typical routes from the floating dock launch area to AT&T park or Bayview and Hunters Point have you paddling amongst houseboats and alongside large cargo liners. 

This waterway was once used as a sewer, and the activity increased as slaughterhouses came into the area. Now that it has been cleaned up, it is one of the more desirable areas within the city. 

Although there are no kayak rental companies in the area, there is Kayaks Unlimited Co-op. This is a membership-only co-op that maintains the beach and creek in exchange for boat storage. 

5. Spring Lake Regional Park, Santa Rosa, CA

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, CA by Sandip Bhattacharya (CC BY 2.0)

Offering many outdoor activities besides kayaking, Spring Lake Regional Park is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The conditions at Spring Lake gear toward intermediate-level kayakers, but the waters also feature motorized boats, so it is wise to stay close to shore. 

Not only can you kayak, but there is swimming in the lagoon, nearby vineyards (that you can see from the water!), an inflatable waterpark, biking paths, camping, equestrian trails, and hiking. 

Kayak rentals are available at the Violetti Road entrance and are only available by online reservation. The launch area is located at the park’s entrance on Newanga Avenue. 

6. Oakland Estuary Park, CA

Hopping over the Bay Bridge to the island of Alameda, you will find a fun kayaking experience at Oakland Estuary Park. It is here that the strait that cuts through the San Francisco Bay separates the cities of Oakland and Alameda. It offers beginner-level paddling for families and those just looking for a calm day.

The drop-in point for Estuary Park is at Jack London Square, where they offer both classes and kayak rentals through California Canoe and Kayak. Once you are out in the open water, you will experience calmness away from the hustle and bustle, along with wildlife and open water. 

The launch area comprises retail shopping and restaurants, so it’s an excellent place to make an enjoyable day of it. 

7. China Basin (McCovey Cove), CA

McCovey Cove, CA by Bryce Edwards (CC BY 2.0)

In perhaps one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have in San Francisco, kayaking in China Basin is a blast. Right behind Oracle Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, is an area of the bay that locals and tourists flock to in boats and kayaks in the hope of catching “splash hits,” which are home runs that make their way into the bay.

To date, there have been over 80 splash hits into McCovey Cove. Many fans enjoy taking their radios and tuning into the game while floating with their kayaks in the bay. It’s like being at the game without the ticket prices!

There are rental options through City Kayak, which also offers game day packages. Don’t forget to bring a net in case you get the opportunity to catch a splash hit!

8. Lake Chabot, CA

For a change of pace, drive over to the suburbs for some fun in the water at Lake Chabot. Boasting over 300 acres and only available to electric motorized boats, canoes, and kayaks, it is a beginner-level, calm area to take in nature and enjoy an afternoon.

There are fees associated with the area as part of the state park regulations. One payment will accommodate parking, whereas another will be for the mandatory mussels inspection. The launch area is a 200-yard walk from the parking area, and many families enjoy taking a trip around the lake at a leisurely pace.

Although there are no rental options available at Lake Chabot, the short walking distance to the launch area makes it convenient for those to bring their own. 

9. Shimada Friendship Park, CA

One of the hidden gems of the bay area for kayakers and windsurfers alike is Shimada Friendship Park. Overlooking the Santa Fe Channel, you will share the space with cargo liners and recreational boats. However, many people look past that for the quick walk to the launch area and the free parking.

The conditions can get quite windy; therefore, it’s most suited for intermediate kayakers and up—especially on breezy weather days. Unfortunately, there is no place around that provides rentals, but the convenient location makes it easy to bring your own. 

10. Petaluma River, CA

Petaluma River, CA by Lisa Padilla (CC BY 2.0)

The Petaluma River offers something for everybody, but it’s especially popular with kayakers due to the variety of conditions on offer. Although most of the river has flat tide, other areas can get higher currents when the wind picks up. 

The further you go down the river, the higher the likelihood of running into challenging currents and tides. With that in mind, it’s best to kayak to your skill level while paddling the Petaluma River. 

There are numerous drop-in locations for Petaluma River, including:

  • Papas Taverna/Lakeville Landing Marina
  • Turning Basin
  • Petaluma Marina
  • Black Point Boat Launch

You can take many different directions once you get into the water, with some heading to the downtown area for some scenic exploration and others venturing further out towards San Pablo Bay. You can rent gear through Paddle Petaluma and Clavey Paddlesports.  

Plan out your day in advance and check the tide tables to dictate your kayaking adventure’s best and safest path. The river has options for long trips and short excursions, so anything is possible for your journey!

Summing up the Best Places to Kayak Near San Francisco

San Francisco is surrounded by water, all with varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to tides and currents. This environment is well-loved by kayakers and offers many different options for adventures. 

Although it’s often challenging to find the best spots for your favorite water activities when visiting and not a resident, we have done all the necessary research to provide them for you. With this list, you will be on your way to exploring the ten best places to kayak in San Francisco!